25 May 2020
Seaweed. You no doubt recognize it as the green stuff that tickles your feet when you swim in the sea. That creepy stuff can help solve social problems such as the impending food shortage and the transition towards green energy. It can even contribute to reducing greenhouse gas methane emissions. However, much more seaweed must be grown in order to be able to use it for these purposes. Start-up SpaceSea wants to help seaweed farmers expand their farms.
Students from Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) are designing a platform where seaweed farmers are able to gain insights from satellite data from the European Space Agency. There are a number of satellites floating around the earth that collect data on, for example, water temperature and the chemical composition of various places in the oceans. “We can provide a variety of services based on this data. Such as remote monitoring of farms, prediction of ocean conditions, early warnings for farmers, recommendations for optimal operation times and locations for future farms.”
“We’re working with seaweed farmers and biologists to identify the ideal water conditions for various seaweed species to grow. We are able to establish what the conditions are at different areas in the ocean. This is how we can recommend ideal matches to farmers by using these models and the satellite data,” explains Santiago Princ, technical manager at SpaceSea.
This makes it clear to seaweed farmers as to where they can best grow certain types of seaweed. “Nowadays, seaweed farmers often have small farms in places that made sense to them personally or were convenient to them,” he says. “In the future, for example, if they want to expand their farm, they will need a tool to help them see where a particular seaweed grows best.”
Seaweed farmers are able to save a lot of time and money with this tool. At the moment, farmers have to physically go on the water with a boat to determine the condition of the water and to see if the seaweed is still growing properly. “Apart from the fact that it takes a lot of time, it also costs a lot of money,” says Princ. “Farmers often have to hire a boat and divers. These must be insured properly as well. And there are plenty of other costs that farmers face.” According to Princ, the total amount that farmers have to pay in order to monitor seaweed growth can amount to around 2000 euros per trip. “We are able to offer our monitoring tool for about ten percent of the current price.”
With the tool, the farmers can not only measure the water conditions at any given moment, but they can also see how it will develop over time. “We are also able to make predictions based on the data from past years with the help of machine-learning,” says Princ. “For example, we can suggest that a farmer should leave a seaweed crop for another week that was supposed to be harvested after three weeks. Or harvest it earlier if the upcoming conditions could prove harmful. For instance, if the temperature of the water were to get higher.”
He hopes that the data will enable SpaceSea to warn farmers if something goes wrong with the crops, e.g., when warm water currents turn up. “This way a harvest is less likely to be affected or lost and subsequently farmers face less risk.”
All that seaweed can be used for all kinds of purposes. “According to official estimates, there will be over 9 billion people in the world by 2050,” says Princ. “These people will need food and energy, but food and energy production are not very sustainable at the moment. He believes that seaweed can change this. “First of all, it is tasty and very nutritious. It has more iron than other vegetables. We can start eating more seaweed. But it can serve as fertilizer for crops and food for cattle such as cows as well”. “This will make meat production more sustainable,” says the co-founder.
Cows emit a relatively large amount of methane via belching and flatulence. This greenhouse gas is not good for the environment – it is roughly 25 times worse than CO2. “By incorporating seaweed into bovine feed, around 30% less methane is released through their belching and flatulence. Producing enough seaweed is paramount in order to be able to use it on a large scale.
Seaweed also has remarkable applications in the energy sector. “It can also be used in the production of biofuels. Its chemical composition makes it exceedingly well suited to this purpose. In fact, seaweed has been categorized as the third generation biomass source for the production of renewable energy, a bit like bioethanol – which is currently the most efficient generation,” he says.
Seaweed production must first expand considerably in order to take full advantage of these applications. “We are further developing the technology at SpaceSea so as to make this happen. We currently have a prototype, and are laying down the basis for running a pilot.” says Princ. The product will be able to enter the market after that.
SpaceSea started out at TU/e Innovation Space with the help of various organizations such as the Netherlands Space Office and the European Space Agency. The start-up is focusing on the European market first. Nevertheless, the European seaweed market is still in its infancy. Comparatively, 97% of the world’s seaweed production is presently being done in Asia.
“We want to raise awareness of the potential of seaweed and establish ourselves in the local market. Once we have laid down a solid foundation, we want to expand into the American and Asian markets as there are great opportunities for growth there.”